#4 - JRL 7130
April 3, 2003
Stop appeasing Russia
By Svante E. Cornell
Svante E. Cornell is deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.
Evidence that Russia has sold advanced weapons to Iraq in recent months is a serious accusation against a putative ally of America. But, it should come as no surprise. While posing as a key ally ever since September 11, Vladimir Putin's Russia has covertly, but systematically, counteracted American national interests in the Middle East, as well as in Central and Northeast Asia. The Bush administration has been aware of Russia's actions, but downplayed rather than confronting them to keep relations at a good level. It is now time to re-evaluate Russia's role in American foreign policy and to end a potentially counterproductive policy of appeasement.
The recent news is indeed perplexing. Russian companies have been selling Iraq advanced high-tech military equipment, including night goggles and GPS jamming equipment. Iraq's use of the equipment hampers U.S. superiority on the ground, and hence puts American lives at risk.
The Russian government was informed in June 2002, but did nothing. For months, its government even claimed the company selling the jamming technology did not exist, though U.S. officials, among other evidence, presented printouts of its official Web page. Russia now alternatively denies the entire affair or claims the deal went through third countries.
That the affair involves private companies should not be taken as an excuse. Military industries in Russia are closely tied to the state, and it is inconceivable that such high-level equipment would be exported without government permission or supervision. Likewise, the use of front companies in third countries is an age-old way of avoiding export controls and sanctions.
Russian companies and the government hardly thought a country like Yemen would buy this advanced equipment: everyone knew perfectly well where the materiel was headed. Why else would Russian specialists be in Iraq training Saddam's troops to use the weaponry?
More serious is that this is only the latest and most incriminating in a long series of Russian actions that run counter to American interests. Russia is also one of the few governments in the world that keeps active and rosy relations with North Korea, providing a certain sense of international legitimacy to the rogue regime of Kim Jong-Il. Russia has been continuing to arm North Korea in spite of the country's steps toward going nuclear and its standoff with Washington, and the Russian foreign minister said there were no plans to cut back on arms sales as late as this January.
As if this were not enough, Russia has, practically speaking, supplied Iran with technology to produce nuclear weapons. Besides agreeing in 1995 to build the controversial Bushehr nuclear reactor and supply Iran with low-enriched uranium, Russia has been involved in the recently discovered Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak, which experts agree are part of a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, the Bush administration suspects Russia has sold Iran uranium enrichment technology, enabling it to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Russia is deeply involved in arming the three rogue states defined by President Bush as constituting "the axis of evil." But, Russia's policies don't stop at this. With France in the West and China in the East, Mr. Putin is openly pursuing an agenda of multipolarity, plainly seeking to deprive America of its leading role in world politics. In Central Asia, Russia is stepping up efforts to check America's military presence. Its newly set-up air base in Kyrgyzstan is an example, as are its continuing pressure on U.S. ally, Georgia, and recent moves to annex Abkhazia, a breakaway part of Georgia.
How should the U.S. government respond? The first step is to reassess Mr. Putin's sincerity when he claims to be a U.S. ally. Arming rogue states can in no way be compatible with being an American ally. Russia's help in the war on terrorism is important, but cannot come at this price.
The second step is to stop the policy of appeasement that successive American administrations have been employing in their approach to Russia. The Clinton administration was most notorious in its Russia-first policy that set American interests back several years in Central Asia and the Caucasus. But, the Bush administration seems to have inherited some of the benevolence toward Russia that its predecessor suffered from. Mr. Putin needs to be confronted with some stern choices. He has to be made to understand that he cannot both arm America's enemies and call himself a U.S. ally. So far, he has believed he can get away with both. In history, Russian leaders have tended to understand clear and unambiguous language best. It's time Mr. Bush gave him some of that: If you want to be America's ally, it's time you acted like one.